Holding the Government Accountable

Cancer Study on Camp Lejeune Mired in Controversy

Recent events suggest that cleaning up the government’s record on the Camp Lejeune water contamination might prove more difficult than cleaning up the pollution itself.

Last month, a mortality study conducted on a cohort of former active duty military members and civilian employees stationed at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune between 1975 and 1985—during which time the water was contaminated—found that Camp Lejeune had elevated mortality rates when compared with a similarly sized military base in California. While these results may seem uncontroversial and expected, heated discussions followed the study’s release. Tense emails and a Hill visit immediately preceded the sudden resignation of the director heading the Center for Disease Control (CDC) agency that works on toxin-related illnesses.

The release of the study by the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) resurrected a six-year-old debate over the feasibility and need for a related, more targeted study on cancer incidence among a similar cohort of Camp Lejeune victims—a study that could directly affect victim care. In an appearance on Capitol Hill in February, then-Acting Director of ATSDR, Dr. Tanja Popovic, told legislators that her agency lacked the authority and expertise to carry out such a study, according to a letter drafted by the Members of Congress involved.

Though neither Dr. Popovic nor the CDC have confirmed the cause of Popovic’s unexpected resignation, the timing suggests a link to tension over Camp Lejeune studies. Following a series of clashes with former Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger and other advocates for Camp Lejeune contamination victims, Dr. Popovic appeared on Capitol Hill to address concerns over how she was handling “Camp Lejeune issues and congressional liaisons for Popovic’s division, the CDC, and the Department of Health and Human Services,” according to the National Journal. Popovic’s resignation was announced the following business day.

Dr. Popovic’s tenure as acting director of ATSDR was short, but hectic. Also noteworthy in her seven weeks in the position was the way she dealt with a toxic spill in West Virginia, in which she assured residents that the water was safe, saying of the water, “You can drink it. You can bathe in it. You can use it how you like.” Meanwhile, a notice based on guidance from the CDC advised pregnant women to find alternate sources of water.

The findings of the mortality study only strengthen arguments for a further, more targeted study into cancer incidence among this cohort. Conclusions of the recent report cite various cancers as major causes of death—“The study found increased risk of death in the Camp Lejeune cohort for several causes including cancers of the cervix, esophagus, kidney, and liver, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.” And this is only the tip of the iceberg—it doesn’t count those who were diagnosed with cancer but died from other causes.

Unfortunately, the confirmation of high cancer rates does little to improve the situation of those currently seeking care for illnesses suspected to be related to the contamination. A law signed in 2012 does help victims by expanding healthcare coverage (H.R. 1627, Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act), but is limited to a list of illnesses thought to be related at the time of the bill signing. Notably, the list does not include cervical cancer or liver cancer—both of which were listed as major causes of death in the mortality study.

Ensminger, a tireless champion of Camp Lejeune victims, has long called for ATSDR to perform a cancer incidence study to prove linkages between various cancers and the contamination—a move that could directly improve care of victims. In 2007, Ensminger was told that ATSDR could do a cancer incidence study, yet Dr. Popovic said the opposite almost seven years later. (It’s unclear why ATSDR didn’t do the study in 2007.)

Luckily, congressional champions were quick to react to the tension raised by the Camp Lejeune mortality study. Dr. Popovic’s statement that ATSDR lacks the authority to conduct a cancer incidence study did not sit well with legislators. In a letter dated March 12, Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.) joined North Carolina Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) in urging the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees ATSDR, to take quick action toward such a study, setting March 28 as the deadline for response. The letter raises concern with Popovic’s statement, saying, “Conducting public health studies of this nature on National Priority List sites was precisely the reason [ATSDR] was created.” Hopefully the next director of ATSDR will share this view.

The letter goes on to express concerns over how ATSDR, and Popovic specifically, had been handling a Community Assistance Panel for Camp Lejeune. The Community Assistance Panel (CAP) is the formal forum provided for Camp Lejeune community members to engage with ATSDR, and in recent months, regular meetings have been postponed without explanation. The CAP has been working on this issue for over a decade: cancer incidence studies were first raised in a meeting in 2006.

While the fight for a cancer incidence study is ongoing, Camp Lejeune victims also face the possibility that legal claims regarding illnesses related to the water contamination may be dismissed summarily based on a North Carolina statute restricting the length of time a victim has to file a lawsuit. The Supreme Court will hear a case related to this legal issue next month. The Project On Government Oversight wrote about it here and did a follow-up here.

As evidence of the contamination and its terrible effects mounts, the question remains: When will the U.S. government accept responsibility for the military and civilian families affected by the contamination at Camp Lejeune?

Image by Flickr user borderhacker.